SPEAKING TO AUTHOR CARMIEL BANASKY ON THE PUBLICATION OF HER NOVEL AT THE BROAD’S CINDY SHERMAN EXHIBITION
Carmiel Banaksy’s debut novel The Suicide of Claire Bishop twists together two timelines. One starts in 1959 with Claire, a NYC socialite, who sits for a portrait. The other begins in 2004 with West, a man with schizophrenia, who discovers Claire’s portrait in a gallery. The main allure of this portrait is not the life it reflects, but more so, the death—Claire’s possible suicide. It’s a conduit which haunts both characters, driving their fractured lives to intersect while evoking a soft meditation on the difference between seeing and being seen.
Given the artful subject matter, we thought it suitable to catch up with Banasky at Imitation of Life, Cindy Sherman’s Broad retrospective. Here, we discuss not only her book, but also the power of portraiture in both the literary and visual world.
Tell me about the portrait that inspired your novel.
A socialite writer in NYC commissioned Frida Kahlo to paint a portrait of her friend, Dorothy Hale, who had recently committed suicide. It was supposed to be a commemorative portrait. But… Frida painted Dorothy Hale falling from a skyscraper. It was crass and insulting. The woman tried to get rid of the painting. It’s called The Suicide of Dorothy Hale and it’s beautiful.
That anecdote always interested me—in fact I heard about it through a poem by our friend, Sarah Eggers—and I wanted to see what would happen if I twisted it to be about a painted POTENTIAL suicide.
The publisher’s description says that your book involves “the terrifying power of representation” . . . what does that mean to you?
Ah, that was a line from my original pitch that made it all the way to the back copy. I guess it was my way of summing up the affect the painting has on Claire and West’s lives. A representation of Claire made her see and eventually accept something in herself that was always there. Portraiture can be a lens, or a dangerous way to fragment the self, or a way to distance one from the self. The power of representation can create an inescapable story, like Cindy Sherman is pointing out—one that says women are to look a certain way.
In portraits, are we looking to see ourselves or how others see us?
Looking at any piece of art, any film, any story, we’re looking to recognize ourselves in another, and to be shown something about ourselves. Even in citing the differences between people (ahem Trump) and drawing thick lines in the sand, we are at once pointing out the similarities. Everyone wants to belong (to or with each other). Even if our behavior says otherwise, I think we want to see ourselves reflected back at us in another. We want to connect. In that connection is a validation of the self.
In general, how would you describe the relationship between character and portraiture?
I would say creating a character is something between a portrait and a self-portrait. Some people think that fiction means making things up out of thin air – but it is more like creating one thing out of many things. In Claire, for instance, I’ve magnified some of my own neuroses, and added many elements from many personalities in people I know. By writing myself into a character, I see certain things about myself. By becoming, trying on experiences that aren’t my own, and juxtaposing my personality beside others all inside one container of a character, I get to know myself better. Maybe some artists feel that way about their subjects—they have to inhabit.
The way my character Nicolette paints, she finds and makes visual the darker aspects of her subjects. Which perhaps is what writing is too—revealing what’s hidden beneath.
What is a page and a canvas? In writing, we try to paint a portrait of a person as if they are NOT stilled in time through character change. We try to convey motion and time, but really, that ink isn’t changing once it goes to print. Claire is exactly who she is on each page—forever.
However, I like what Alice Neel said about time and painting—that a painting shows time, duration, not just a moment stilled in time. Maybe both because it’s a point of relativity, it shows the context of time. My novel, in that sense, is a portrait of me—though only I can see it in my drafts: I was this person when I wrote my first sentence, and a completely different six-years-older person when I wrote my last sentence.
With identity being so finicky in life, when writing, how do you generate realness? What does realness in art mean to you? Maybe it’s always another type of pretense you are working through?
As we go through life, the persona, our many masks are usually subconscious, or we are blatantly lying to ourselves that they aren’t masks. We don’t normally walk through our lives thinking, “I am a constructed identity,” even though that’s true. We don’t casually, constantly think, I am communicating who I am through many layers of representation. But in art, in writing, the medium is a construction. So even if we aim for suspension of disbelief and we want the reader to be in the story and create “real” characters—the truth of unrealness is always there. You can always remind yourself that this thing is written.
When writing a character like West, I want him to be as real as possible, because the purpose of writing him is to get people to see his “otherness” inside of themselves and relate to it. But the act of that is through deciding what truths to include and not to include—i.e. what is most true to this character and story, rather than what is the most true of schizophrenia. Luckily, those two things were one and the same for the most part.
So if art says, “I am pretense” just by being art, then I think there is room for it to jab holes in the pretense we experience every day. Maybe all art does this implicitly, but Cindy Sherman does this explicitly. In college, when I first saw Cindy Sherman, and was of course taking a class on Postmodernism, it blew my mind to think about everything being a representation of a representation. I liked seeing her work again, more than a decade later—because I feel like, “So… now what? If you’ve seen the matrix, what do you do tomorrow?” Ha. That’s maybe a little dramatic. But, is authenticity possible? What is authenticity? And do we care?
When I say, “I write to get to know myself,” I guess I mean that by intentionally putting on masks, trying on another life, the pretense of the everyday life is highlighted. And maybe in that interstitial space between life make-believe and writing make-believe, there’s an opening to find some authenticity.
Your novel also deals with multiples and time. The character Nicolette appears in different perspectives and ages throughout. Also, I get the sense that time is mystical to you. Is it? How does time function in your work and life?
Yes, I am interested in memory as time travel. My character West is convinced that time travel is possible and is drawn to ideas that are related to a breakdown in perceived separation. Like the idea that if you are empathetic enough, you feel another’s pain as if it’s your own. This is tied to his confusion regarding where he ends and another begins, a symptom of schizophrenia. Or the idea that when you remember something viscerally, the same synapses light up in your brain as when you actual experience it.
You had mentioned people with Alzheimer’s revisiting moments in which something is unfinished, like a true haunting or ghost of a moment. Events that are supposed to be behind them are instead a fog all around them. My character Elsa, Claire’s mother, does this in the late stages of Alzheimer’s, with the memory of her husband. She’s left waiting for him all of time. And so the question for Claire, and for the reader, is: what moment would you be haunted by? And what would you choose to return to?
Much of your novel feels like a neurotic haunting for both West and Claire. For example, Claire could simply have seen her death portrait and had a good laugh about it. Instead, she takes it seriously, offensively, obsessively. In that situation, humor might have been a more logical response. Yet, your characters go and grapple with a more serious translation. I wonder, how do you see humor (or lack thereof) functioning in relation to character on the page and/or in Sherman’s work?
I don’t think Claire could choose humor at the point in her life. She has suicidal ideation that she is not even aware of. She’s never articulated it like that, and here is Nicolette, putting into images what she has fought to keep under cover from herself her whole life. Claire has more fun later, when etiquette flies out the window (along with her money) and she lets activist boys use her home as headquarters in the ’60s. West, however, does have humor in his approach to life, I think, or at least more delight.
Cindy Sherman—especially in that horror movie we watched of hers—seems to bring a lot of humor to her Very Serious Art. I imagine she took herself more seriously when she was young, and now approaches the same themes, decades later, with a different tone. In her later work she returned to film and actresses and nostalgia as a way of talking about representation and the self and pretense—maybe those huge, glossy, most recent photographs are more delightful in some way.
Yeah, I guess what I find interesting is how much power your character Claire gives Nicolette’s portrait. She doesn’t dismiss it. It makes sense that if it’s a manifestation of an ideation though—like a psychic calling out a deep secret in her subject.
I wonder, have you ever sat for a portrait and how did this feel?
I sat for several portraits while I was writing my earlier drafts just to see what it would feel like. It was strange. I was physically very tense at least for the first while of each one. Holding a pose is interesting—maybe there is something about stopping time as the sitter, trying to maintain who you were when you first sat down. And to be stared at that long, to feel your own physical form fragmented in the artist’s mind into anatomical pieces—it’s strange if you think about it too much. Or maybe it’s a lovely thing to have your cheekbones examined like that, for your forehead to be understood and then rendered.
Some people are at ease under another’s gaze, and others aren’t. I tense when someone is snapping a picture with their iPhone. I’m even horrible about selfies—other people always seem to know what side of their face and angle of their chin is best. Meanwhile, Cindy Sherman was always under her own gaze in order to comment about the male gaze. And that was her home.
You’ve said before that writing sex scenes for your character Claire at each stage in her life helped you to understand her more fully. When writing these scenes, how do you consider the male gaze or any gaze? Tell me more about this process.
I thought a lot about Claire’s own gaze on herself. She disassociates during sex, looks down on herself as if from a perch on the ceiling. She’s not in her body—another symptom of not accepting or knowing herself. But, through these encounters, she tries on different masks and sees which one fits. Is she a lesbian? Does she really love Mary? She had to try out the role to figure it out.
The other gaze is Nicolette, the artist’s. She has a powerful gaze and sees the dark parts of a person that they haven’t even named themselves. Later in the novel, Claire sleeps with another of Nicolette’s subjects. The only thing they have in common and the only reason they’re interested in one another is because they’ve both experienced this super-gaze. (This man confronts his own portrait with the humor that Claire lacks.)
I suppose there isn’t much of a male gaze in the novel so much as everyone fidgeting under their own gaze. It’s the same when Claire shares her story verbally—each time she does, she loses something, is betrayed in some way, until she just has to let go of Story.
But in general, I think sex scenes can shed a lot of light on a character. Who are they in bed? How present or distant? Do they become more themselves or pose instead, as if for a portrait? That is important information to gain as you write a character. Allowing Claire to have sex in each chapter of her life allowed me to see her arc of change via a different constellation.
Images via The Broad
Written by Stacy Elaine Dacheux